Kenyans carry on conquering

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The Independent Online
KENYA'S domination of long- and middle-distance athletics events anywhere, anytime of the year and in any conditions was re-confirmed in the bone-hard fields of Maiden Castle here yesterday when their latest protg, Paul Tergat, won the World Cross-Country title. However, they had to concede the women's race to the Ethiopian Olympic 10,000 metres champion, Derartu Tulu, who dispatched a powerful challenge from the three times runner-up, Catherina McKiernan, of Ireland.

Any thoughts that the absence of Kenya's leading two men, John Ngugi and William Siegei, who between them had won the event seven times, would play into the hands of others,were dispelled as the Kenyans ran a tactical race, using their power on the climbs to break the bulk of the field.

Within 500m there were five Kenyans in the top half-dozen. James Songok, a pacemaker for them the year before, carried out a similar task here, leading after 3km and trying to damage theEthiopian challenge headed by Haile Gebresilasie, the 5,000m world record-holder. Tergat, who finished fifth last year ran elegantly and economically.

By 4km the field had strung out hugely, with the Europeans mainly drifting back. Ismael Kirui, winner of the Durham International on New Year's Eve, and Tergat shook off Gebresilasie but Salh Hissou, of Morocco, persevered until Tergat stormed away after 9km. Kirui just held off Hissou for third while the best Briton was Andrew Pearson, a commendable 20th. There was cause for optimism, in that there were 10 Europeans in the first 25, mainly for France and Portugal, whose investment in distance and cross- country running puts Britain to shame.

So the Kenyan high-altitude conveyor belt continues to hum. Ngugi was under suspension for drugs and Sigei was injured. No matter. They produce distance runners like the north-east used to supply footballers.

Years ago cross-country was a European and American preserve, but the fact that Africans had won the previous nine men's world championships, and in spite of the fact that Helen Chepenego had given Kenya their first women's title last year, the organisers felt that it would be the women's event this year that might come up with something more exciting than the expected Kenyan men's procession. So the women ran last, which would have been a risk if the course had been soft.

Paula Radcliffe's comeback after last year's injuries is clearly unfinished but yesterday she bravely joined the 18-year-old favourite Rose Cheruiyot and Sally Barsosio, both of Kenya, at the head of the early pacemakers, only to find McKiernan on her shoulder after 2km.

Treating the women's race as the highlight of the day was fully justified. While there was always a feeling that Radcliffe had insufficient miles in her legs to sustain her early defiance of such an intimidating group of rivals, McKiernan had moved up strongly, well aware that energy wasted tracking the early pace would prove a waste on this fast, almost track- like surface.

A leading group of six left the rest trailing, but Radcliffe began to drift to the back of the group as McKiernan increased the pace. Tulu and McKiernan climbed the hill together. Tulu glanced across, and saw no sign of distress from her rival and at the same time must have caught a glimpse of the Irish flag being carried alongside by one of McKiernan's many followers.

McKiernan led going into the last lap but Tulu looked strong, and in the 17th minute of the race she kicked away to win comfortably from McKiernan, with Radcliffe slipping into 18th place.

Tulu's victory was doubly impressive since her team had been badly delayed, meaning that they failed to arrive in Durham until the early hours. But nothing seems to trouble the Africans: Kenya won all four senior and junior team events yesterday. Considering the proximity of next Sunday's London Marathon and the lack of support for distance running, British runners were not expected to win, which is not to say that there was no evidence yesterday to support those who want to restore Britain's pride in the sport it invented.